After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted the entry of Chinese immigrant laborers, the American agricultural industry turned to Japanese contract workers to replace Chinese laborers. Unlike the Chinese, Japanese laborers were more likely to travel to America with their families. Also differently than the Chinese, the Japanese families did not live in isolated enclaves but dispersed throughout California cities.
As the Library of Congress reports, at the turn of the century, more than 100,000 Japanese nationals arrived in the U.S., finding employment in migratory labor, working the farms, mines, canneries, and railroads of the American West. Eventually, some launched their own businesses, such as Japanese restaurants, boarding houses, and shops. Many Japanese farmers, using the labor-intensive growing methods of their homeland, were able to buy their own land and launch successful agricultural businesses, from farms to produce shops. By 1920, Japanese immigrant farmers controlled more than 450,000 acres of land in California, brought to market more than 10 percent of its crop revenue, and had produced at least one American-made millionaire.
Sadly, with the success of the immigrants, anti-Chinese prejudice soon morphed into anti-Oriental bias, especially as the Japanese provided a scapegoat for concerns over jobs and wages. Ironically, the Japanese were seen as an even larger threat than the Chinese because of the tendency of the Japanese to assimilate into Western culture and do well.
In February, 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper officially launched an editorial anti-Japanese campaign which fueled existing animosity in the Caucasian community. In May, 1905, The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, a group composed almost entirely of labor unions, was established to push for the segregation of Japanese and Koreans and the legal exclusion additional Asian immigrants.
In 1906, on this day in history, the San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of 93 Japanese American students from 23 elementary schools.
At the time, Japanese immigrants made up approximately 1% of the population of California. The Japanese students were assigned to the city’s Chinese Primary School, renamed “The Oriental Public School for Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.” Japanese-Americans soon contacted the media in Japan to make the government aware of the segregation. Tokyo newspapers denounced the segregation as an “insult to their national pride and honor.”
Alarmed at the uproar, President Theodore Roosevelt promised Japan that he would use his influence to get the order of the San Francisco school board changed. Then, in order to meet the objections of the Californians, Roosevelt obtained a “gentlemen’s agreement,” or informal understanding, with the Japanese government. Through this “gentlemen’s agreement,” Japanese promised to keep its laborers from migrating to the United States. Roosevelt, in turn, promised not to seek formal legislation prohibiting the Japanese from moving to the United States.
On February 8, 1907, Roosevelt and his Secretary of State Elihu Root met with San Francisco school officials and California legislative leaders to work out a negotiation. The California officials agreed to reinstate Japanese students, while the federal government withdrew its lawsuits and promised to limit Japanese labor immigration. The Japanese agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers bound for the continental United States. However, passports might be issued to returning laborers and the “parents, wives and children of laborers already resident there.” As this was an executive agreement, it required no congressional ratification.
The provision for the admission of wives led to the rise of “picture brides” – women whose marriages had been arranged through photographs prior to their arrival in the United States. As a result of this loophole, the community was spared the extreme gender imbalance that had deterred the growth of the Chinese community. In 1910, the ratio of Japanese men to women was 7 to 1; by 1920, it was less than 2 to 1.
But less than five years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 legally banned all Asians from migrating to the United States.